Thursday, February 01, 2007

10. Startide Rising by David Brin

Startide Rising cover pictureDavid Brin is very well respected and recommended. His Uplift series is well-known in the geekosphere. I read Sundiver and found it wanting a bit. I was not motivated to continue the series, especially with so much more sci-fi in front of me that I haven't read yet. However, two new friends I have met, whose taste in other things so far seems quite solid, strongly recommended that I give the series a second chance. They both agreed that Sundiver was the weakest of the first trilogy. That information clinched it for me and I kept an eye out for a cheap used copy, which I eventually found at Half-Price books in berkeley. Actually, not a tough find at all. There are so many used copies available that it is more of a challenge to find it as cheap as possible. I got it for a buck seventy-five, autographed as well ("Hello, Mike! —David Brin").

The Uplift universe is made up of a hierarchy of alien species. The dominant paradigm is that it is not possible for a species to reach sentience and space travel on their own. Rather, a patron race must lift them up through genetic manipulation. The uplifted species is then indentured to the patron species for 10,000 years. This worldview believes in an ancient race, called the Progenitors, who uplifted the current patron races and then left. Humans are an anomaly, a "wofling" race that raised itself up to space travel and are thus beholden to no patron race. Though puny and young, the humans' very existence causes a significant rift in the complex politics of the universe. Many believe they were secretly uplifted and not told. It's much more complicated than that. All the various races are constantly fighting for power. And they are all different species, so they have different worldviews, physiologies, cultures, etc. Some are helpful to the humans; others hostile.

A powerful tool in this mythos is the Library, a vast, ancient and inscrutable collection of knowledge, pieces of which are handed down parsimoniously by the patron races. Most species learn their tech through the library. The humans have access to the Library, but in a very limited and convoluted way and they pride themselves on developing their own tech, though it is significantly primitive in relation to what the library can offer. Humans have uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, who by the law of the universe are thus indebted to them. But humans try to maintain an equal relationship with their client species, another violation of the uplift laws.

Startide Rising takes place on a distant planet, covered in metallic-water and small, metal islands. The human ship The Streaker accidently discovered a vast, derelict fleet. A communication about it back to earth is intercepted. The derelict fleet could have information of the Progenitors. All the patron races rush to catch the streaker, which has the fleet's coordinates and a corpse taken from one of the ships. The human ship hunkers down underwater, while the competing fleets battle in the skies above them.

It took me a while to get into Startide Rising. I was held back trying to get all the details of the setting and by my own hesitancy. Furthermore, the relationships between dolphins, humans and the one scientist chimp on board are equally complicated and take a while to absorb. But once I did, the narrative really too off. The characters are interesting and compelling. The antagonists are infuriating and you really want them to get theirs. The story and the science and the idea that humans are kind of cool renegades among a bunch of super-powerful but super-dogmatic alien races all blend together to create a really exciting read. I tore through the second half and am definitely going to read the next one.

Finally, there is a strong ecological theme hiding under the surface. Humans still carry the shame of their history towards other mammals and it colours their relationships with their client species. It is also an interesting form of extreme colonialism. Technologically superior species don't just come and exploit the natives, they genetically manipulate them into forms that are pleasing to them and use them as servants/slaves.

Good stuff, strongly recommended.

Startide Rising big picture


Jarrett said...

another compelling Olman review. I may get to this one this year.

I also really like the painting you made for the book.

Olman Feelyus said...

Thanks! I kind of cheated, starting out having models and dolphins pose for a photograph, then I took it into photoshop and added the fantastic elements (the tech on the dolphins, the suits). Then I printed the whole thing out and repainted it by hand. That was the stage where I added the volcanoes and space ships. It was really an exercise to help me process the book and write my review, but I'm quite happy with the way it turned out!